Confession: I don’t really “do” Thanksgiving. I love the concept (controversial roots aside) of a day of the year when we all stop to reflect on how incredibly fortunate we are in life. What could be more important than taking that time in this time-poor, harried day and age? But I married a Chinese-American, and, though his family can certainly put on a feast, turkey and cranberry sauce aren’t usually on the menu. I’m Australian, so the entire holiday is a novelty for me too.
Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful excuse to get together with family that is always seized with gusto. My husband is an only child, so it’s just the four-and-a-bit-of-us: his parents, the two of us, and our 10-month-old. This means I don’t have to cook a large volume of food, and I don’t like turkey (sorry), so I jumped at the excuse to make one of my very favorite recipes in the world — pho bo, a Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
I first tried pho at Pho Hong, a wonderful restaurant in Burlington which I highly recommend if you’re up that way, and it was love at first slurp. The flavor! The textures of the beef and accompaniments! It was just a delight. I needed a way to have it that didn’t require driving to Burlington, so I decided to learn to make it.
A friend of mine from Australia is Vietnamese, and she passed on her mom’s recipe. It’s a long recipe, so my yammering on will be (perhaps mercifully) short this week. I try my best to do it justice, though I don’t have a native’s understanding of the flavor balance and spice mix. I hope any people of Vietnamese heritage who might be reading this will forgive me any horrendous mistakes!
I get all the spices from the Rutland Area Food Co-op, because it’s just a lot easier to buy from the bulk section there than to buy a container of spices you might only use for this one dish. The beef bones can be had from the Wallingford Meat Locker — I use beef femurs, cut to lengths of four inches or so. You can use any beef bones you like, but don’t fall into the trap of having too much meat on them, and don’t pay top dollar for special soup bones.
This is the kind of recipe you set aside a whole day to complete. It fills the house with amazing aromas. The kitchen gets steamy. It’s really a wonderful dish, and if you have the time and the desire, I really encourage you to give it a try. It’s not that challenging; it just takes time. But it’s worth it!
Beef noodle soup (pho bo)
Makes approximately 8 bowls
- 2 yellow onions
- 5-6 ounces ginger
- 7-8 pounds beef soup bones
- 5 star anise
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 3-inch cinnamon stick
- 2 cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 pound beef chuck
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 4 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1.5-2 ounces rock sugar (palm sugar or even brown sugar might be an acceptable alternative, but rock sugar is available at Asian markets if you have access to one)
- 2-3 packets fresh banh pho noodles or 2 packets dried
- 8-9 ounces raw, good-quality steak (very cold or slightly frozen)
- 1 yellow onion, sliced paper-thin, left to soak for 30 minutes in a bowl of cold water
- 4 scallions, green part only, cut into thin rings
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 8 ounces fresh bean sprouts
- 8-10 lime wedges
- Sprigs of spearmint and Asian/Thai basil
With broiler on high, place onions cut side up and ginger whole on a baking tray. When onions and ginger are starting to smell sweet and blacken (around 15 minutes), turn them for an additional 10 minutes, then set aside until cool enough to touch. Peel the ginger and remove blackened parts of the onion and skin. Set aside.
Place bones in large (3 gallon plus) pot and cover with cold water over high heat. Boil vigorously for 3 minutes. Dump bones into a very clean sink and rinse with warm water. Quickly clean pot, put all the bones back in and cover with 1.5 gallons of water. Bring to boil, skim any obvious scum from the surface, then reduce to a simmer. Add remaining broth ingredients, then cook for 90 minutes.
Remove chuck from pot, put into cold water to arrest cooking, then store wrapped in fridge until preparing bowls. Allow broth to continue cooking; in total, the broth should simmer 8-10 hours.
Strain broth through fine strainer. If desired, remove any bits of gelatinous tendon from bones to add to your pho bowl. Store tendon with cooked beef. Discard remaining strained solids.
Use ladle to skim as much fat from top of broth as you like. Boil on high heat and taste regularly until the flavor is just a little too strong — the bowls contain mild flavors so you want the broth quite strong. If you go too far, add some water. Add more salt, fish sauce or rock sugar if balance is out.
To assemble the bowls, be as organized as possible. Have the broth boiling. Bring a pot of water up to the boil for the rice noodles and cook per instructions on package. Thinly slice cooked chuck and raw steak.
Noodles should occupy about a quarter of your bowl. Place other ingredients (sliced raw beef, sliced cooked beef, thinly sliced onion, bean sprouts) atop the noodles, then ladle hot broth carefully over the bowls to ensure everything gets warm and cooked. The heat from the boiling broth cooks the raw beef. Top with scallions and chopped herbs. Squeeze lime wedges to taste. Optionally, add sriracha to taste.